Yuenü (越女) – c.496 – 465 BCE – Yue, China

Ancient China, China

‘She may look like an elegant lady, but she fights like a fierce tiger…’

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This woman is also known as Aliao and the Maiden of the Southern Forest. She lived during the Spring and Autumn period in ancient China. Her father was a hunter in the southern state of Yue and likely passed on his skills in archery and swordsmanship to her.

She had a gift for martial arts and became extremely adept, particularly in the art of the sword. Her talents were famous throughout the province and came to the attention of King Goujian of Yue. She was summoned by him to give a demonstration before the King’s court.

The young woman impressed Goujian so much that he asked for her advice in training to his armies. Her response is the earliest known Chinese exposition of the art of the sword:

“The art of the sword is profound and hard to understand despite appearing insignificant and easy. It is similar to a door, in that it can be opened and closed; it can be divided into yin and yang. The way of fighting… is to strengthen one’s inner spirit while remaining outwardly calm and well mannered. She may look like an elegant lady, but she fights like a fierce tiger. With this imposing manner, you can pit a single fighter against one hundred, and pit one hundred against one thousand.”

"Sword of the Yue Maiden (越女劍)" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“Sword of the Yue Maiden (越女劍)” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

This impressed Goujian even further and he gave her the title Yuenü (literally ‘the Yue Woman’ or ‘Lady of Yue’). Further to this, he decreed that Yuenü would train his officers, so that they could instruct his army in her method.

Yuenü‘s philosophy of swordsmanship went on to influence Chinese martial arts for generations.


Notes:

  • The Spring and Autumn Period is the name for a period in Chinese history covering approximately the years between 771 and 476 BCE. It corresponds roughly with the first half of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

References:

The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity through Sui – Lily Xiao Hong Lee

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sword of the Yue Maiden is a 1970 short story by Jin Yong and bears similarities to the life of Yuenü. It was serialised as a television programme in 1984 starring Moon Lee as the maiden.

Agnodice – 4th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Agnodice was born into a wealthy Athenian family and had one ambition; to become a doctor. Intelligent, rich and hardworking, the only thing that stood in her way was the law. In 4th Century Athens, it was a capital crime for a woman to study or practice medicine.

Being blessed with a can-do attitude and enough money to travel abroad, Agnodice left Greece for Egypt, where women actively took part in healthcare. She studied anatomy and midwifery in Alexandria under famous doctor and scientist Herophilos. Eventually she was ready to return to Athens. Knowing the law, Agnodice cut her hair short and wore men’s clothes when she arrived home, where she began to treat the women of Athens.

Agnodice engraving - Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

Agnodice engraving – Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that one day Agnodice was passing a house when she heard a woman in the throes of labour. She immediately came to the woman’s aid, but was turned away because women in Athens were ashamed to have a male doctor attend them. Agnodice then revealed that she was, in fact, female, and was able to treat the woman successfully.

This experience was typical for Athens at the time, where women often suffered and died needlessly rather than see a male doctor. Soon, word got out that Agnodice was practicing, and she became the most popular physician in the city.

The men of Athens became suspicious. The male doctors accused Agnodice of seducing their female patients and taking away their trade, and she was brought to trial before the husbands of the women she treated. Seeing no way out, Agnodice revealed her true sex – unfortunately this now meant that her crime warranted execution. Before judgement could be passed, a mob of women arrived at the trial. They berated their husbands and praised Agnodice, who had saved many of their lives.

Following a debate, Agnodice was acquitted and the law of Athens was changed to permit female physicians. Agnodice became a symbol for the trust and comfort shared between women, and in the 17th century her story became used by midwives defending their trade against other male-dominated areas of medicine.


References:

Fabulous Female PhysiciansFlorence Kirsh and Sharon Kirsh

Women in Medicine University of Virginia

The Art and Artifice of Agnodice Jackie Rosenheck

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic (pg. 29-28)

On Wikipedia:

Arete – fl.5th or 4th Century BCE – Attica, Greece

Ancient Greece

“The splendour of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates, and the tongue of Homer.”

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Arete of Cyrene succeeded her father Aristippus as the head of the Cyrenaic school of philosophers. The sources report that she taught philosophy for thirty-five years to well over a hundred students and that she wrote forty books. Unfortunately, none has survived.

Aristippus had been taught by Socrates, and passed his knowledge on to his daughter. In turn, Arete taught her own son, Aristippus the Younger, who was known by the nickname ‘mother-taught’. The Cyrenaics believed in sensual hedonism. They taught that the only intrinsic good is physical pleasure and enjoyable sensations.

Arete was well known during her lifetime, and stands out in history as being one of the few women to teach publicly and to publish work.


References:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and MythologyWilliam Smith

Society for the Study of Women Philosophers: Arete of CyreneKate Lindemann

On Wikipedia:

Timycha – 4th Century BCE – Tarentum, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Timycha was a Pythagorean philosopher from the Spartan colony Tarentum. She and her husband joined a group of Pythagorean pilgrims who followed the teachings and ethics of that school.

One day they were journeying to Metapontum when they were invited to visit the court of Dionysius the Elder, who wished to discuss philosophy with them. The band of pilgrims knew that Dionysius was a tyrant and did not trust his intentions, so they refused the invitation and carried on their way.

The cruel king was hugely insulted, and sent his soldiers to capture the philosophers and bring them to him by force. Timycha’s group was attacked, and though they could have easily escaped by running through a field of beans, their religious beliefs forbade them from trampling upon the plants. They tried to get around the field, but were overtaken by Dionysius’ soldiers and slaughtered. Only Timycha, who was heavily pregnant, and her husband survived to be brought to the King.

Dionysius heard the story of the bean field and became curious about the taboo. He questioned the couple, who refused to speak. Pythagoreans did not share their beliefs or the teachings of Pythagoras with just anyone, and Timycha and her husband stood firm. Eventually Dionysius ordered that Timycha be tortured until she gave up the secret.

He had hoped that this would frighten the philosopher into giving up, but Timycha was made of sterner stuff. The story goes that she bit off her own tongue and spat it at the King’s feet as a show of defiance. Now he would never know.

History too, was deprived of this knowledge. There is no consensus on why the Pythagoreans avoided trampling the bean field. We do know that Pythagoras taught that all life is sacred, and his followers were vegetarians for this reason, though they were not permitted to eat beans. One theory for this is to do with the shape of the bean, and the belief that it served as a vessel to carry souls from the afterlife back to earth. Belief in reincarnation was fundamental to Pythagoreans, so the bean may have been a powerful symbol to them.

It’s not clear what happened to Timycha or her husband after this unusual incident, though they were likely put to death. Her story was told for many years by Pythagoreans and she was used as a model of courage and hailed as a martyr for the cause.


References:

The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z GuideTrevor Curnow

Explaining Pythagorean Abstinence from BeansJames Dye

On Wikipedia:

Cleobulina – fl.550 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Cleobulina is most well known for her poetry, which took the form of witty riddles. Her reputation for playfulness and wisdom was held in high regard by three learned men of the time; Aristotle, Plutarch and Diogenes.

As with the majority of ancient Greek women, we know hardly anything at all about Cleobulina’s life. She was born in Rhodes and her father was Cleobulus, one of the seven sages (or wise men) of Greece. He may have educated his daughter, as she became skilled in writing poetry in hexameter and writing riddles.

The philosopher Thales described Cleobulina as having ‘a stateman’s mind’ and nicknamed her Eumetis – ‘wise counsel’. This indicates that beyond her poetry and enigmas, Cleobulina must have been an intelligent political thinker, and possibly advised her father, the ruler of Rhodes.

A thousand years after her death, Bathusa Markin used Cleobulina as an example of the triumphs of learned women to advocate the education of noble women in his own time.


 

References

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers – Diogenes Laertius

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An AnthologyIan Michael Plant

An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen by Bathusa Makin

Sappho – c.630/12 – 570 BCE – Lesbos, Greece

Ancient Greece

“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!

Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”

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Plato called her ‘wise Sappho’. Solon of Athens once said that he would be happy to die having learned one of her songs; Horace described her work as sacred. Sappho was as celebrated and respected for her art as any man or woman in the ancient world.

800px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2She was included as the only woman among the nine Greek lyric poets who were studied by the Alexandrians (Greeks) and later the Romans. Sappho is still well known today, despite much of her work being lost. There are about 200 remnants of Sappho’s poetry still in existence, all of varying lengths. As well as manuscripts copied by scholars over time, her poetry survives on papyrus fragments and pieces of pottery.

She wrote about heroic deeds and praise for the Gods – but is most remembered for her passionate love poetry and razor sharp wit:

“She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.”

“Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?”

Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a noble family and had three older brothers. She may have had a daughter who she named Cleïs after her mother.

What we know of Sappho’s life is based on her own poetry, and the writings of a few contemporary and later Greek historians. She spent most of her life on Lesbos, though she lived during a politically turbulent era and at one point was exiled for a short time. Her fellow poet and friend Alcaeus described her as ‘Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho’ and most physical descriptions agree that she was small and dark haired.

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho’s immense reputation surpasses many other poets of antiquity – she was called the tenth muse, was studied by Greeks, Romans and later the Victorians, odes were written to her, paintings and statues were created in her image. She is often praised for the clarity of language in her love poetry and her sharp descriptions – she is the first writer known to describe the moon as ‘silvery’.

“You have returned!
You did well to not depart
because I pined for you.
Now you have re-lit the torch
I bear for you in my heart,
this flare of Love.
I bless you and bless you and bless you
because we’re no longer apart.”

It would be difficult to discuss Sappho without stumbling upon a number of references to her sexuality. Her poetry focused on love and passion for people of both sexes. The word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the island she lived on, and she is also the origin of the word Sapphic. These words did not come to be applied to gay women until the 19th Century, and the poet’s reputation for same-sex relationships did not come about until 300 years after her death, nevertheless the rumor has become legend.

“Once more I dive into this fathomless sea,
intoxicated by lust.”

It was not uncommon for male poets such as Alcaeus and Pindar to form romantic relationships with both men and women in their social circle, so it might be assumed that Sappho adopted a similar attitude. Later philosopher Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with women to Socrates relationships with men, claiming that they were simply ‘captivated by all things beautiful’.


References:

New Poems by Sappho – Dirk Obbink

English Translations of Sappho’s Works

In Our Time: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

Great Lives: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong is a fiction novel based on the life of the poet.

Erinna – c. 600 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet.
But loudly I shouted, “Dearest,
You’re mine!”

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A friend of Sappho and just as famous during her lifetime, Erinna is one of the few female Greek poets whose work is extant (still in existence).

She came from Rhodes, or one of the surrounding islands and wrote her most famous poem, The Distaff, when she was only nineteen years old. The poem is a lament for her friend Baucis, who died shortly before her wedding. The 300 line poem, which is written in hexameter verse, gives us the only information we have about the life of Erinna as she mourns her childhood fiend:

These things I
Lament and sorrow, sad Baucis.
These are for me, O Maiden,
Warm trails back through my heart:
Joy, once filled, smoulders in ash;
Young, in rooms without a care,
We held our miming dolls—girls
In the pretense of young brides
(And the toward-dawn-mother
Lotted wool to tending women,
Calling Baucis to salt the meat);

The poem is deeply heartfelt and recalls the act of weaving (a distaff is a spindle for spinning wool) using it as a metaphor for poetry and the thread of life. Erinna’s poetry gives us a rare and important glimpse into the lives of ancient Greek women as well as their relationships with each other.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Erinna was the most famous of Greek women poets after Sappho and was well known at least three hundred years after her death. Her praises are sung by other Greek writers, and she was compared favorably with Homer. Some biographies mention that Erinna died very young, shortly after having written The Distaff, making her accomplishments even more impressive.


References:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

The Distaff

On Wikipedia:

Ennigaldi – fl. 547 BCE – Ur, Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia

The ultimate career woman, Ennigaldi devoted her life to no less than three full time occupations, including archaeologist and curator of the world’s first museum – “For the marvel of the beholders”.

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A day in the life of Princess Ennigaldi:

The Mesopotamian princess would have woken and eaten breakfast in her private quarters within the Palace at Ur, known as E-Gig-Par (now in Iran). Ennigaldi might then have gone to oversee the Priestess School which she administrated as High Priestess. The upper class women who were educated there were literate and learned a dialect known as Emesal, which was a special women’s language.

Ennigaldi was a beloved educator, spending less time than her predecessors had on the corporal punishment of her students. She herself loved to learn, and had a particular passion for history. Her father, King Nabonidus took an interest in antiques and restoration – in fact he is considered the first serious archaeologist, undertaking a number of excavations during his reign. The King clearly passed this fascination on to his daughter, who was inspired to create the first museum known to history.

The museum was built in the Palace complex, close to Ennigaldi’s living quarters. It contained artefacts excavated by her father, and some originally collected by famous Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Many of them were centuries old by Ennigaldi’s time and she used them to educate others on the history of Mesopotamia and her dynasty’s heritage.

The antiquities were arranged neatly side by side, as in many modern day museums. Each individual piece was labelled with a description– carefully translated into a number of languages. Ennigaldi’s name is also inscribed throughout the museum as ‘Bel-Shalti-Nannar’, which is the title she was given after her ascension to High priestess. King Nabonidus shows an obvious affection and pride for his daughter, with whom he shared this common interest, writing:

I built anew the house of Bel-shalti-Nannar, my daughter, the priestess of Sin. And: May Bêl-shalti-Nannar the daughter, the beloved of my heart, be strong before them; and may her word prevail.

In her evenings, Ennigaldi would attend to her duties as High priestess. She worshipped Nanna (also known as Sin) the moon god in the Great Ziggurat of Ur, an enormous pyramid shaped Temple. She carried out her religious rituals and prayers in a small temple at the top of the Ziggurat known as the giparu, which her father had restored especially for her.


References:

The story behind the world’s oldest museumAlasdair Wilkins

Ur Excavations vol. IX: The Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods Sir Leonard Woolley

On Wikipedia:


Notes:

Emesal – Meaning “fine tongue” or “high-pitched voice”, though often translated as “women’s language.” It is used exclusively by female characters in some literary texts. In addition, it is dominant in certain genres of cult songs.

Tomyris – fl. c. 530 BCE – Eastern Iran

Ancient Iran

“Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed… Refuse, and I swear by the sun, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”

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Queen Tomyris ruled over the Massagetae, a nomadic warrior tribe in what is now Eastern Iran. We know little of her life outside of one major military campaign in which she defeated Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. The Massagetae were famous for their skills in battle. They fought both on foot and on horseback, and were particularly adept with battle-axes. They worshipped the sun and wore armour made of gold and brass.

Tomyris had ruled alone since the death of her husband. Elsewhere, Cyrus the Great had been ploughing his way through ancient Mesopotamia. After conquering the Kingdom of Babylon which neighboured Tomyris’ lands, he was looking to expand his territory further. He sent an ambassador to Tomyris, asking for her hand in marriage. The Messagetae queen was no fool, and refused to give up her power to the Persian emperor. At once, Cyrus declared war and began building a bridge to cross the river into Tomyris’ territory.

Tomyris soon became bored of Cyrus’ building project, and sent a letter asking to move things along. She gave Cyrus the option of leaving in peace, or picking a side of the river to fight on. Cyrus was ready to call Tomyris over into Persian territory to do battle there, when one of his advisors, Croseus, chimed in with some advice that proves chauvinism is never a useful tactic. He told Cyrus that it would be a disgrace to give a woman any ground. They should take the fight to her.

Croseus also had a plan to lure the Messagetae armies into a trap – by cooking them dinner. Once they were on the other side of the river, the Persians made sure there was plenty of food laid out – as well as gallons of wine, which the Messagetae did not produce and were not used to drinking (preferring to imbibe in hashish and fermented mare’s milk, naturally). When the rival army arrived, they found not the Persians, but a delicious feast!

Unable to believe their luck, the army sat down and gorged themselves until they were too full and drunk to move. Cyrus took this opportunity to swoop in and take the incapacitated men prisoner. Among these was General Spargapises – Tomyris’ son.

When the Queen heard what had happened she was furious. She considered it a poor success to capture an army of drunken men, and threatened Cyrus that if she did not get her son back then she would give the Persians their ‘fill of blood’. When Cyrus simply ignored her, Tomyris gathered all of her forces and attacked.

The Massagetae won, destroying the Persian army. Cyrus was killed, ending his twenty-nine year reign. Once the battle was over, Tomyris commanded that Cyrus’ body was found and brought to her. Triumphant, she filled a skin with blood, sliced off her enemies head and dunked it in.

"Tomiris" by Peter Paul Rubens. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Tomiris” by Peter Paul Rubens. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.”


References

Herodotus: Queen Tomyris of the Messagetai and the Defeat of the Persians Under Cyrus

On Wikipedia: